Less is Less

This month’s issue of Inc. Magazine features a profile of Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals. The part that caught my attention was the open:

You could sum up Jason Fried’s philosophy as “less is more.” Except that he hates that expression, because, he says, it still “implies that more is better.”

More clearly isn’t better. I wrote about a small bit about the ideas of Sarah Susanka a few months ago. Carried to an extreme, the idea of smaller houses results in the work of Jay Shafer, like in this video (via the 37Signals blog):

A happy coincidence occured, where I saw the above video during the same week that that I saw the video that follows: an etude for piano and electronics by fellow Jamoma developer Alexander Refsum Jensenius. As Alexander describes it:

Many performances of live electronics is based on large amounts of electronic equipment, cables, sound cards, large PA-speakers, etc. One problem with this is that the visual appearance of the setup looks chaotic. Another is that the potential for things that can go wrong seems to increase exponentially with the amount of equipment being used. The largest problem, though, at least based on my own experience of performing with live electronics, is that much effort is spent on making sure that everything is working properly at the same time. This leaves less mental capacity to focus on the performance itself, and sonic output.

I am currently exploring simplicity in performance, i.e. simplicity in both setup and musical scope.

I can attest to the problems Alexander relates, and I think the musical results he achieves are incredibly beautiful – in part because using less helps to focus the musical expression and make it more concise.

Making things simple, concise, and expressive, is incredibly difficult to do: whether it be music, prose, code, business, architecture, or hardware. It’s great to see examples of people finding the sweet-spot.

Poème Symphonique

Metronome 3.  Photo: Nigel Appleton.

Metronome 3. Photo: Nigel Appleton.

Last night I attended a concert of György Ligeti’s music hosted by newEar in Kansas City.  It was spectacular.  I don’t think the review in the Kansas City Star really did it justice.

Where the review was spot-on is in saying the the most conceptually interesting piece was the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.  During the intermission all of the metronomes were wound and then released as the audience came back into the performance space.

The metronomes looked dapper for the performance – they were rented and all were of the same make and model.  This may seem trivial, but it really did add visually to the performance, and I think sonically as well.

I doubt this work could be effective in a recording.  For one thing, the spatial information (and how the metronomes interact with the space) provides a rich amount of information when hearing the piece live.  There is also a lot of visual information.  When looking at a particular group of metronomes, it became possible to really focus and hear what was happening within that group of metronomes as a foreground element, while the rest of the ‘metronome orchestra’ laid the backdrop.  In fact, the Cello Concerto functioned in much the same way — a piece that never felt compelling to me from recordings and was arresting to see and hear performed live because some much of the information in the performance is transmitted visually.

I was also pleasant surprised by the spectral diversity of the performance of Poème Symphonique. The clicks from the metronomes in the space produces a lot of phasing, and thus difference and summation tones were audible.

Metronome.  Photo: abbyladybug.

Metronome. Photo: abbyladybug.

The form of the piece was a bit like the form of a big rain storm.  Slowly it winds down as the metronomes slow and stop and various beating and phasing of the metronome beats maintain an organic unity/variety.  Eventually, down to just a few metronomes, really interesting rhythmic counterpoint emerges — again, much like dripping water in metal gutters after a big rain storm.  The rhythms here also strongly mirrored the polyrhythmic “Fanfares” from the Études pour Piano that closed the first half (and whose performance by Robert Pherigo was also mesmerizing).  The review in the Star complained about the one rogue metronome that kept playing for 7 minutes after the others had all wound down.  In fact, I thought it was quite an interesting way to end: that one dripping eave or gutter that just keeps going.

The ticking of the last metronome also transported me back to being a kid being kept away by a very large clock at night when we visited my grandparents.  So the passing of time, being performed by a device for marking time, was serving as an idée fixe of sorts for a variety of imagery brought to the performance by the individual audience members, and also provided a built-in moment in the piece for reflection.  Perhaps the author of the review in the Star didn’t have much to reflect upon.

Speaking with David McIntire afterwards, he relayed that there was a metronome in Thursday night’s rehearsal that went on for a long time at the end, so they specifically didn’t wind that one fully.  But in last night’s performance a different metronome, Metronome #9, was the rogue metronome instead.  I guess metronomes can have personalities too.